Bribery - Chinese Snuff Bottles
A personal view by
John Neville Cohen
There is little doubt that the
finest bottles were made in the reigns of Chien Lung 1736 - 95,
Chia Ching 1796 - 1820 and Tao Kuang 1821 - 50. All
Chinese artwork reached the highest of peaks during Chien Lung's
reign thanks to his patronage and encouragement.
the taking of snuff had become very popular amongst the elite at
an ideal time, so we have all the finest of the art forms
superbly applied to the creation of snuff bottles.
are some exceptions, but after Tao Kuang's death far too many
bottles of indifferent craftsmanship have been made, right up to
the present day.
What's in a
most other great works of art, in collecting snuff bottles we
have no artists' signatures. I use the term 'artist'
deliberately rather than craftsman, for when studying the finest
of bottles brilliant though the skills are, there is also superb
We are free to value and judge purely
on the quality of the work, in many other art works we are
greatly influenced by the name, often more so than by the
quality. Just consider a doodle type sketch with the signature
Picasso, it is worth a fortune, yet without that signature it
would probably be unsaleable!
True, there are some
bottles that are signed and dated, these being the 'Inside
Painted' ones, but they represent a very small part of an
enormous range of snuff bottles.
There is one other type
of influence however and that is a genuine seal mark, especially
if accompanied with 'By Imperial Command' although such a seal
adds value it would also have to be an outstanding piece.
Etiquette Led to Desire
Taking snuff was not just a habit,
but closer to a fashion in the way it was practiced by the
Manchus right up to the Emperor. Friends would exchange
snuff when meeting in the street or at social occasions, but a
number of etiquette rules were demanded. Rather like
with the well known tea ceremony, where appreciation of the
containers and the aroma were of great importance, so it was
with snuff:- sometimes partaking a little of the snuff offered,
otherwise just sniffing the aroma, but always paying a lot of
attention to the bottle before returning it with a bow.
There were many different types of snuff made by adding herbs
and spices to the tobacco.
Great satisfaction was
achieved when a coveted bottle was properly admired, and a lot
of one-upmanship was involved. Each would desire to own
the more impressive piece and as these were such small items it
was not long before the first collections were formed.
Today too, much of the pleasure of owning these bottles is
derived from discussion and shared appreciation. There is
nothing quite like the delight and satisfaction of owning a
superb piece especially when seeing the reaction of other
They were so sought after that
although many were given as highly valued gifts, there are
records of bottles playing a big part in bribery. Only a
collector can know just how exciting and wonderful a bottle
becomes, once you know that at last, it is about to become your
own. I can well understand how effective bottles could be
Ho - Shen
The Emperor Chien-Lung had his own
collection, but his prime minister Ho-Shen, who at the time was
the wealthiest man in the world controlling the opium trade,
owned a huge collection of 2,390 bottles. He was a very
dubious and corrupt character who demanded snuff bottles in
return for almost anything.
What I find interesting is
that here was a man of extraordinary wealth, who could have had
the best of any of the types of bottles ever made, yet his
collection was surprisingly confined to just stone and amber
bottles. When one considers the variety of wonderful
bottles he could have included, that we value so much still
today, it is strange that he was not tempted by such beautiful
glass, porcelain, enamel, lacquer, cloisonné, ivory, bronze or
inside painted bottles of which there were some phenomenal
Our fascination with stone bottles that are
still our favourites, especially the 'Picture Agates' that were
the basis of our collection, did not stop us including many
other types. Thinking back as to why we started to
purchase other bottles, the motivation really was a desire to
add more colours to our collection. When on display the
stones alone lacked the brighter colours available in glass and
The Need to Touch
I think this is an apt place to
mention my personal views about collections in private hands as
against museums. I am strongly in favour of private
collection for certain tactile creations. A big part of
the appreciation of items like netsuke, pendants, amulets and
snuff bottles is dependent upon being able to handle them as so
much is lost if they remain locked away behind glass! It
is much better for those who really desire them to pay for the
privilege of being the guardians of these little treasures for a
Ho-Shen favoured, as we do, the
stone bottles so perhaps I should explain more about jade, the
most treasured stone of all to the Chinese. jade has been
highly prized by the earliest of civilisations, having far more
value than gold. Sages of the past believed and related
jade to all the virtues, as it was thought to protect and cure
both physical and psychological ills, plus having the powers to
endow one with wisdom.
The Aztecs of Mexico in 1500 BC
and the Aboriginal Maoris of New Zealand all carved Jade as
ornaments and weapons centuries earlier than the time of the
white man. No one anywhere, before or since, has achieved
the exquisite carving ability of the Chinese in the 18th
Jade was not found in China but brought in from
Burma, although nephrite was found in the Kunlun mountains
western China, but it is really a different stone. To the
Chinese however, they considered and treated it as jade.
Both minerals are not easy to carve because of the crystal
formation, as some areas are much harder than others are but
both are extremely brittle although very hard rocks.
A wide range of colours were found and used. The bright
greens, white, yellow and nephrite off-white called
appropriately `mutton fat' were all highly valued.
Photographed is a prized bright emerald and yellow jade bottle
of ovoid form that is well hollowed.
Many other stones were carved into
bottles particularly the quartz type of minerals.
These are the most abundant of all the rocks and make up a large
part of the world's surface and are found in the form of many
semi-precious stones such as rock crystal, cornelian,
chalcedony, smoke quartz and agate. All these varieties
have been successfully used and feature in all good bottle
collections. As an example I have illustrated a fine well
hollowed bulbous quartz bottle with various crystalline
inclusions that look like they are exploding! Other
interesting bottles have been made from such minerals as
limestone; puddingstone formed in volcanoes, inkstone, soapstone
and coral. Later malachite, turquoise, lapis lazuli, tourmaline,
and aquamarine were also carved, although a few of these were
carved earlier, they tend to be rather rare.
So what do I look for when buying
stone bottles? Personally the first thing I check is the
weight, as I only buy really well hollowed bottles. The
material must be attractive and the shape should also appeal.
Make sure the bottle is in perfect condition; always have a good
look at the neck and the foot of the bottle for any signs of
damage. I also prefer one that has a good stopper and
spoon that looks right with the bottle.
The next point
is to be satisfied that it is stone and not a glass imitation,
as there are some remarkable glass copies! If the bottle
is also carved then the quality of that carving and the artistic
composition are important considerations. The Chinese
often would carve a bottle taking advantage of a natural flaw in
the stone so cleverly, that it would appear as if the flaw was
required to be there, in order to improve the design!
Those illustrated are selected as good examples of the plain
type of non-picture stone snuff bottles. All are well
hollowed, so much so that they would trap enough air to float in
water. The gray jade bulbous bottle looks more like a
blown piece of glass and amazing skill is required to hollow out
a hard stone this well, referred to as 'eggshell thin' and that
is no exaggeration!
I have also shown a well-carved jade
snuff bottle featuring the five bats. Bats are a good luck
symbol for the Chinese and the five bats represent the five
blessings of long life. These are wealth, tranquility, and
love of virtue, children and a natural peaceful death.
Of all the stone snuff bottles the
picture agates are really our favourites. These are snuff
bottles where the natural inclusions found inside the stone have
been used to create pictures. There is so much to
describe about these bottles that I have decided that they
justify a separate article.
Lastly, I do not approve of
any form of bribery, but as a keen collector I confess that
should anyone mention that a good bottle is on the market they
will have my immediate full attention!
Neville Cohen: An International award winning photographer
who also became a well known Asian antiques collector and an
enthusiast of Jensen British classic cars.
Other interests are skiing and Salsa dancing.
The author has been a very keen
collector for many years in helping to create 'The Cohen
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